Friday, July 31, 2009

What's In a Name?

One of the minor joys of reading lots of cases is you see lots of interesting names, especially aliases, but one today from a Fourth Circuit case really takes the cake. The case is Smith v. Ozmint, but the plaintiff has a more interesting handle:

Kevin Smith,* a South Carolina prisoner, appeals the district
court’s award of summary judgment . . .
*We refer to Smith as his name appears in the case caption even though he now prefers and uses the name Bar-None Royal Blackness.
I wonder if he shares a cell with Raymond Luxury Yacht?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Album of the Day

Flower Power, by The Flower Kings (2006): Just before I turned the corner into multi-disc albums, I said that, for the most part, albums that fill up the entirety of a CD these days are over padded and just too damn long. That goes doubly true when The Flower Kings are involved. This is one of four studio albums of theirs that fill out two CDs. Honestly, nobody needs 2 hours and 20 minutes of The Flower Kings in one sitting. There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here and there, but it's so spaced out that it gets lost in the mass of ordinariness. Even if you want to keep all of "Garden of Dreams," the hour-long epic that spans the first disc (which then still has an 8-minute instrument tacked on the end), intact, you could cut whole chucks away and still have lots left. I mean, really, any album with "Magic Pie" on it is way too long!

Bad (and, Thankfully, Dumb) Cops

It's really hard to give cops the benefit of the doubt when their preparation for testilying is caught on videotape. Their own videotape, to boot.

Here's the story, from south Florida. A woman got into a car crash with a police officer. Actually, the cop rear ended her. He called for backup and she was immediately arrested for DUI and put in the back of one of the responding police cars. Then the shenanigans began:

The cops begin to brainstorm believable excuses for the accident.

'As far as I'm concerned. I'm going to put words in his mouth. She went to accelerate and a cat jumped out of the window at which point he thought it could have been a pedestrian, which distracted him,' Pressley tells Sgt. Andrew Diaz, another veteran of the force. 'I mean what's the chances of hitting a f[uck]in drunk when a cat jumps out of the window?'

* * *

Then, another cop debates with Pressley on who is going to write up the fabricated report to clear their police comrade.

'I know how I'm going to word this with the cat so we can get him off the hook. I'll write the narrative,' Pressley says. 'We're going to bend this a little bit.'
The rationalizations one cop comes up with for lying is just precious:
Throughout the tape, the cops acknowledged what they are doing is illegal, but when you are the law, there is nothing wrong with bending it for a fellow cop, one says.

'I don't lie and make things up ever because it's wrong, but if I need to bend it a little bit to protect a cop, I'll do it,' Pressley tells Francisco after reassuring him no one will ever find out.
Hear that, jurors of the world? It's OK for a cop to lie if it's to protect another cop (sort of like Minbari, I guess). Does that mean that every cop lies all the time? Nope. It just means that they're human, like the rest of us, not a font of always accurate and unbiased information.

Better Late Than Never

Generally, if you wait 38 years to bring a claim to court, you get the door shut in your face. But not in the UK, apparently, if you helped write one of the most recognizable songs of the late 1960s:

Procol Harum organist Matthew Fisher has won his long battle to be recognised as co-writer of the band's hit Whiter Shade of Pale.

Law Lords have ruled that Mr Fisher, who claimed he wrote the song's haunting organ melody, is entitled to a share of future royalties.
Fisher won at trial in 2006, but had an appellate court throw out the verdict because he waited too long to bring the claim. The Lords disagreed:
The Law Lords said the delay in bringing the case had not caused any harm to the other writers who had, in fact, benefited financially from it.

Lord Hope added that there were no time limits under English law in copyright claims.
That's an interesting argument - that the other copyright holders weren't prejudiced by the delay because they got a larger share of the royalties than they were due during that time. I'm not sure that holds water, but I'm not a Lord, so what do I know?

Of course, you know, this requires some video:

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Album of the Day

After the Storm, by Various Artists (2006): Keeping on the theme of prog fest compilation discs, here's one put together by the guys who started NEARFest (along with Gayle Elliot from Djam Karet). It was a response to Hurricane Katrina, with all the proceeds going to Habitat for Humanity recovery efforts. Two dozen artists contributed material, much of it previously unreleased. It includes great tracks from echolyn (written specifically for the disc), Mike Keneally (a killer cover of an overlooked old Genesis tune), and New Orleans's own Woodenhead. Good tunes for good cause.

Happiness is . . .

. . . discovering that your local Foodland has Skyline Chili.

In a can.

Fuckin' A!

In Which I Get Smug

I try not to be a language Nazi. The meaning of words change over time based on their usage, so I try not to be pedantic about such things. But one pet peeve always sticks in my craw, which is the labeling of "organic" food.

The reason is simple. "Organic" is just a descriptive term that means "contains carbon." Unless I've missed an amazing scientific discovery in the past few decades, every living thing on the planet - people, cows, vegetables - contain carbon and are thus, "organic." I'm not even sure you can buy inorganic food, tho' I wouldn't want to look too closely at the contents of a Twinkie. Regardless, the use of "organic" as a label for food grown in certain ways and pitted against other foods of the same type rankles.

Which is why this story from the BBC made me smirk a little bit:

Organic food is no healthier than ordinary food, a large independent review has concluded.

There is little difference in nutritional value and no evidence of any extra health benefits from eating organic produce, UK researchers found.
Of course, purveyors of "organic" goodies take issue with the conclusion. I've got nothing against people spending more of their own money for equally healthy food - it's their dime, after all. I just wish they wouldn't have such a religious zeal about it.

It is a Small World!

Of all the potential twists of minutiae in the Gates affair, I admit I didn't see this coming:

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the black professor at the center of the racial story involving his arrest outside his Harvard University-owned house, has spoken proudly of his Irish roots.

Strangely enough, he and the Cambridge, Mass., police officer who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley, both trace their ancestry back to the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages.
The Gates/Crowley patriarch is quite a character and left quite the heritage. Must be a large and loud (one might even say "tumultuous") family reunion!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Album of the Day

ProgDay '95, by Various Artists (1997): ProgDay wasn't the first of the modern prog festivals (Progfest out in California beat it to the punch), but the annual gathering in Chapel Hill, North Carolina is the longest continuously running fest in North America. It's success, I think, has given rise to a host of others, including NEARFest (which just celebrated its tenth anniversary) and the Three Rivers Progressive Rock Festival near Pittsburgh, now in its second year.

This two-disc set covers everybody who played the first ProgDay, save Mastermind (their absence isn't explained). It's still an impressive roster - Ozone Quartet, Timothy Pure, Discipline (who would become sort of the Progday house band), Bon Lozaga, and echolyn. In the years since, the only band left together from that group is echolyn, ironically enough, as that was the last show the band played before they briefly broke up. Bon and some of the Discipline guys are still around in the "scene," however.

As for 3RP, this year's fest has some equally impressive big bames - Phideaux, IQ, Glass Hammer, King's X, etc. - so get your tickets today! I got mine yesterday and there are still plenty of good seats available, as they say.

Confirming What We All Can See

The central argument as to why mountaintop removal mining is OK in the end is that the coal companies are required to return the mountains to their original form once they're done, or turn it into some economic development area. Anybody who's been paying attention in West Virginia knows that the coal companies aren't upholding they're part of the bargain:

Coal operators in Southern West Virginia are not restoring large strip-mining sites to their "approximate original contour," despite a state policy change meant to require such reclamation, according to a previously unpublished federal government report.

U.S. Office of Surface Mining investigators found that reclaimed mining sites were left much lower in elevation than required to meet the approximate original contour formula spelled out in their approved permit applications.
I've never been completely convinced that you can return the earth to its previous form once you've blown the fuck out of it, but shouldn't they at least give it a shot? You know, when that's what the law requires? Dare we to hope that some enforcement might follow? I shan't hold my breath.

Thank You, Mississippi

I've written before about the various restrictions on where sex offenders cannot live - within a certain distance of a school, playground, etc. - and that, in some communities, that essentially means they can't live anywhere. The ultimate expression of that would be formal exile, a punishment with a rich history, but one that's fallen out of favor.

Take a case from Mississippi (via SL&P), where a court tried to kick a convicted sex offender right out of the state:

The state Court of Appeals has thrown out a lower court order that a McComb man be banished from Mississippi once he completes a 25-year sentence for a sex crime conviction.

* * *

On the issue of banishment, the Appeals Court said Simoneaux consisted to it as part of the sentencing agreement with prosecutors.

Nonetheless, Appeals Judge Jimmy Maxwell said the 'practice of dumping defendants on other jurisdictions has been held improper by the Mississippi Supreme Court and federal courts on public policy grounds.'

Maxwell said banishment has been upheld where the trial court found, among other things, that it did not hinder rehabilitation and could be shown as in the best interests of the defendant and the public.

'While banishing Simoneaux from Mississippi would perhaps provide a degree of protection to the citizens of our state, we certainly do not want our sister states repaying us for the favor,' Maxwell said.
It really is quite something for the state to tell a citizen, "don't let the door hit you on the way out." It's not like we can dump them all in Australia or something - that's been done. That being said, I would have like to have seen the court get to this result from some kind of core Constitutional value, rather than simply a NIMBY reflex.

I Can See the Shark Jump from Here

I really enjoy True Blood, the HBO series based on Charlaine Harris's vampire novels, but I'm afraid this is not a good sign:

In terrible news for anyone who has trouble distinguishing between reality and a fantasy world where sexy vampires roam the streets of New Orleans, but potentially exciting news for anyone living who would want to consume a beverage intended for the undead, a carbonated drink based on the HBO series 'True Blood' is planned to go on sale in September.
It's one thing when a show is a big hit, but when it starts to spin off real life versions of fictional products, methinks we've hit a saturation point. I hope I'm wrong.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Album of the Day

Here Come the Noisemakers, by Bruce Hornsby (2000): Like I said, Bruce's upcoming Levitate is not the first time The Noisemakers have shown up on CD. This live compilation shows them in fine style. As I've said before, if all you know of Bruce is "he's the guy who sang 'The Way It Is' and that tune with Don Henley," you really owe it to yourself to check this out. Bruce and gang are in their element on stage, folding, spindling, and manipulating Bruce's tunes.

The Corruption of a Higher Power

As the saying goes, "power corrupts - absolute power corrupts absolutely." True as that is, take it a step further - imagine the corruption that extends from absolute power based on the belief that a higher power has ordained it? The scope of that corruption is almost unimaginable.

That's a thread that runs through Deliver Us From Evil, a 2006 Best Documentary nominee about the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Rather than providing a broad overview of the problem, it focuses on the case history of one pedophile priest in California who was, in paradigmatic fashion, shuffled from parish to parish when allegations that he sexually abused young girls and boys would surface. Eventually, the law caught up with Father O'Grady. He served seven years in prison before being deported to his native Ireland.

But it's been the civil suits in the wake of O'Grady's arrest that have uncovered the scope of the cover up in the Church. Was there something about the nature of the Church itself that lent itself to the cover up? Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer, historian, and (we find out eventually) priest suggests there is. He suggests that the doctrine of the Catholic Church dictates that those in power over the laity, from priests on up to the Pope, are an inherently superior class of human being.

In other words, they aren't superior because they wield exceptional power, they wield exceptional power precisely because they are superior to mere mortals. As Doyle explains it, Roger Mahony didn't just cover up O'Grady's repeated crimes to further his own career, but because, in the Church's eyes, the lives of those ordinary children ruined by O'Grady's crimes weren't worth as much as a higher up in the Church hierarchy.

I don't know if Doyle's right, but his argument has a certain appeal. There's a reason, after all, that most of the Western World has thrown off the shackles of monarchy. Many of those monarchs, you'll remember, claimed their authority to rule came from God. And look where that got us?

As for the film itself, it is extraordinarily powerful. The story, in particular, of the Jyono family, brought tears to my eyes at the same time it made me extremely angry. The fact that O'Grady is featured prominently is a bold move on the director's part, as he is (obviously) not a sympathetic character. But his presence in the film really brings it all together. Highly recommended, but a difficult watch.

What Ed Said

The whole kerfuffle over the arrest of Harvard prof (and West Virginia native) Henry Louis Gates flamed up while I was away, with even the President weighing in calling the arrest "stupid." After reading a bit about it, I think I agree precisely with Ed's sentiments over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars:

I don't care if Gates called the guy a cocksucker, called his mother a whore or berated him as a racist from the moment he arrived until the moment he left, none of that is criminal. It would be perfectly legal to say to anyone else and it is perfectly legal to say to a police officer. And the police know it, that's why the charges were dropped within a few hours.

This was a classic case of a power-hungry cop taking the 'you can't talk to me like that' attitude and flexing their authority where it doesn't belong. Well police, it's time to grow up and stop playing pretend. No one else has the right not to be offended or insulted and neither do you. The fact that you have a gun and a badge does not mean that your hurt feelings are more important than anyone else's.
There are too many cops who think "my way or the highway" is part of the Constitution, to whom every encounter is a power struggle they are determined to win. I don't know if that's down to training, to the mentality of people who tend to become cops, or the failure of the justice system (criminal, civil, or otherwise) to reign them in.

That being the case, there's only one sure way to avoid making a bad interaction with a cop even worse:

Where Is the Line?

Over at Findlaw, Julie Hilden takes a look at a case that begs the question of where the line should be drawn between free speech and criminal incitement.

The case involves Hal Turner, a white supremacist from New Jersey with an Internet radio show and the like. He took great exception to the Seventh Circuit's recent decision concluding that the Second Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court's recent Heller decision, was not incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore did not apply to the states. The unanimous decision, from a panel that includes a pair of conservative judicial luminaries, basically said "our hands are tied by prior precedent, which the Supreme Court hasn't overruled yet."

Turner was not impressed:

The charges are based on the fact that on his blog, Turner named three federal appeals judges who had together upheld a handgun ban; opined that each judge 'deserve[d] to die'; and provided the judges' addresses, their phone numbers, and the locations of their workplaces. On his blog, Turner also wrote of (and perhaps to) the judges, 'Observe the Constitution or die.'
Turner is charged with making death threats against the judges. As Hilden points out, the traditional imminence doctrine for threatening speech doesn't fit all that well with the Internet age. Is that enough to chuck it and start again? We'll see as Turner's case moves forward.

Good News, Bad News

Pouring over my Facebook wall yesterday, I found my way to this article that held a bit of unexpected good news - Bruce Hornsby has a new album due out in September. Called Levitate, it's the first for a new label, Verve, and the first studio album to be credited to Bruce and his long time touring band, The Noisemakers.

Unfortunately, it's not all good news:

The album is dedicated to the memory of Hornsby's talented nephew R.S. Hornsby, who frequently performed with Bruce as guest guitarist, and who was killed in a car accident six days after recording a memorable solo on 'Continents Drift.'
When I saw Bruce a few years ago at Wolf Trap, R.S. was playing with him. He fit right in with Bruce's band of seasoned vets, even at a young age. Such a shame.

It's already been a good year for tunes, what with new material from Umphrey's McGee, The Decemberists, and Phideaux. Now I can add Bruce to the list of anticipations, along with the first volume of Mike Keneally's long gestating Scambot project. Rock!

Damn, That Stung

Yeah, OK, our first stringers were off with their club teams after the nice run during the Confederations Cup, but, damn, it still hurts to get spanked 5-0 by Mexico. On "home" soil, no less, in the Gold Cup final. The Mexicans weren't at full strength, either, but I think they were much closer to an "A" side than the Americans were.

Those would be the Americans who, after giving up a goal after a bullshit penalty call (who knew that when the Mexican attacker whangs the American defender in the face with an elbow the American gets called for the foul!), folded like a cheap suit. An even first half gave way to a second half blood bath. Painful to watch, probably even more painful to play through.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Album of the Day

Live at the Murat, by Umphrey's McGee (2007): I know, this is particularly lazy, but I'm on my way out of town, so imagine that I typed all this again fresh.

I'm a Winnah!

For once, at least. Yesterday, the Fourth Circuit handed down its decision in one of the several cases I've argued in the past few months (I wrote about this particular argument here). Guess what - I won! Well, I also lost on one issue, but I expected that. To my pleasure, the opinion was both unanimous and published. More details here.


Signs of the Decline

There will come a time when our society, our entire civilization, will cease to exist. All that we wrangle over these days will become nothing more than dust. I’m talking hundreds of years from now, of course, but still, it’s inevitable. It is the way of all things. After that happens, when the archaeologists and historians of another epoch (and hey, maybe another planet) dig up what’s left of the rubble to see where it all went wrong, they might point to something like this:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJoke of the Day

That’s right. Not only is there an application for your iPhone that makes fart noises, but there are competing ones. And they’re suing each other. So it’s come to this, huh?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Album of the Day

An Evening of Yes Music Plus, by Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, & Howe (1993): Ah, a title only a patent lawyer could love.

In the late 1980s, there was a fissure in the Yes camp. On one side was what is now referred to as "Yes West," which consisted of Chris Squire, Alan White, Tony Kaye, and Trevor Rabin. On the other side was a quartet of "classic" Yesmen - the aforementioned Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe. The ABWH project was planned as a Yes reunion or sorts, but Squire and White were intent on keeping use of the band name for Yes West. Lawyers wrangled, and eventually the Andereson led faction wound up with a name like a law firm and were eventually sued by the other Yes for using the Yes name in concert promotions (as in the title of this album).

Confusing? Yeah, a bit. Worth knowing in order to know what's going on? Depends on your interest in Yes minutiae. The performance preserved here doesn't really do any better on the best cuts from the ABWH album and I don't think the versions of the old Yes tunes here are definitive. The set suffers for the lack of Tony Levin, who filled the bass role in the studio (replaced here by the always capable, but Stickless, Jeff Berlin), as well as some deadly dated digital synth sounds from Wakeman and Bruford.

Worth a listen, but hardly essential. Good back story, though.

Mayfield's Meth Mess

I generally don't pay that much attention to NASCAR, aside from conversations with my secretary, who's a big fan. The whole spec car running 'round in circles thing just doesn't do it for me (same reason I take a pass on IRL oval races, too, for the most part). But it looks like I'm missing out on some real entertainment, at least off the track.

I knew that driver Jeremy Mayfield had failed a drug test and that he tested positive for methamphetamine. But I had no idea just how nasty it got after that:

Known in Nascar circles more for his outspokenness than racing success, Mayfield, 40, sued the organization in May after he was suspended for failing a drug test. Nascar, which by practice does not disclose the exact drug detected, countersued. Mayfield sought a temporary injunction to restore his driving privileges, his lawyers arguing in court that he never used recreational drugs.

On July 1, a judge determined that the chance of a false positive was 'quite substantial' and ruled in Mayfield’s favor, lifting the suspension. That day, Nascar confirmed published reports that Mayfield had tested positive for methamphetamine.

The case became messier last week when Nascar said that Mayfield, who had offered to be retested, had failed a second test for meth. Among the new result and other papers filed by Nascar to persuade the court to lift the injunction was testimony from Mayfield’s stepmother that she had observed him ingesting the drug some 30 times over seven years.
Mayfield's crew has an explanation for the positive tests, but waiving away step mom's allegations rests on their apparently long standing animosity (Mayfield has accused her of killing his father) and will be a little tougher. But, experts point to problems with NASCAR's methods, so maybe there's less here than meets the eye.

Regardless, I'm going to keep a look out for the next (left) turn in this saga.

Becks Battles With Boo Birds

Oh, this is amusing. As a DC United fan, anything that throws the Galaxy into chaos is a good thing, but this is particularly rich.

First, a bit of background. Even since David Beckham arrived on these shores, it's looked like he wants nothing more than to leave. His off season loan to AC Milan was extended to the end of the Serie A season, such that Becks didn't make his MLS debut this season until last week. Theoretically, he'll head back to AC Milan next fall, although he's angling for another job, too.

Amidst all this, Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl has a new book coming out, The Beckham Experiment, in which he dissects the whole spectacle of Becks coming here in the first place. As part of the book, Beckham's Galaxy teammate (and US National Team leader) Landon Donovan blasted him for basically just showing up to collect a check and plan his next move. In other words, being a complete douche (unlike, say Mexican legend Cuauhtémoc Blanco in Chicago, who's been a model pro*).

Cut, then, to Beckham's home debut this season this past weekend in a friendly against - guess who? - AC Milan. Becks was not given a warm welcome:

Beckham was expecting some boos, but not many. And a majority of the crowd sounded glad to see him. Many fans rose to their feet as he prepared for free kicks, which were accompanied by camera flashes throughout the stadium. But the minority was visible and vocal.

When Beckham took the field for warm-ups, he was greeted by a bed sheet that read 'Go Home Fraud' with his number, 23, circled and slashed. 'Here Before, Here After, Here Despite 23' read another. Galaxy officials asked the fans to remove the signs early in the game.

But there was no silencing the messages. Boos followed Beckham whenever the ball came to him, and on several occasions he was addressed with R-rated chants.
Becks even had a moment with a fan at halftime. Ha! Good on the Galaxy faithful. It was said back during the Confederations Cup that fans calling for US coach Bob Bradley's head was a good sign that people were starting to feel passionately about the game. So to, I think, does the general souring on Beckham perhaps mark a similar milestone.

It's no longer enough to be famous and from a good footballing pedigree. You gotta show up, work hard, and earn even the respect of your home fans. Even if you're married to a Spice Girl.

Hell, especially if you're married to a Spice Girl!

* Holy shit, did I say something positive about a Mexican footballer?!?

Another Milestone of Civilization

OK, it's not on the same level as the moon landing, but today is the 50th anniversary of another giant leap in First Amendment jurisprudence. As Fred Kaplan explains in the New York Times, that was when a federal court in New York basically invented modern obscenity jurisprudence when it allowed DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover to be sold in the United States.

It was the result of some clever lawyering by Charles Rembar, who took the Supreme Court's then recent Roth holding and drove a truck around it:

Looking over the Roth decision, Rembar spotted a loophole. The opinion, written by Justice William J. Brennan, noted that the First Amendment’s purpose was 'to assure unfettered interchange of ideas' and that 'all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance — unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion — have the full protection of the guarantees.' But, Brennan went on, 'implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance.'

Rembar mulled over a question that Brennan apparently hadn’t considered: What if a book met the standards of obscenity yet also presented ideas of 'redeeming social importance'? By Brennan’s logic, wouldn’t it qualify for the First Amendment’s protection after all?
That argument carried the day and was later affirmed on appeal. It was a major turning point, but was hardly the end for obscenity prosecutions and banned books and the like in the United States.

I've said before that I don't read the First Amendment as having an obscenity exception and think that whatever consenting adults want to read/watch/listen to is nobody's business but they're own. But that's not a view that's likely to win a majority on the Court (or in the population at large) any time in the near future. For now, I'll accept the fact that obscenity prosecutions are really difficult to win and thus exceptionally rare. As they should be.

What a Way to Celebrate

40 years ago yesterday, man landed on the moon. It is, perhaps, the crowning engineering achievement of civilization (at least it would have won you the game Civilization). Conspiracy theories that the whole thing was a hoax are almost as old. Sadly, it seems that they've even wormed their way onto daytime TV, on the anniversary of the real thing, no less.

Let's just hope, for Whoopi's sake, she doesn't indulge in such nonsense around Buzz Aldrin:

'cause he's having none of it! Good for him.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Album of the Day (Special Edition)

Number Seven, by Phideaux (2009): LA-based collective Phideaux, led by the namesake composer/vocalist/pianist/guitarist Phideaux Xavier, sort of broke through in the prog scene with their 2007 release Doomsday Afternoon. The second part of a trilogy about an ecological apocalypse, the album generated a lot of buzz. I wasn’t immune from the hype, but was pleasantly surprised when the album lived up to it. Which is why I was really looking forward to hearing their new album. I’m equally happy to report that Number Seven is an excellent album that should keep the Phideaux buzz going for quite a while.

Oddly enough, Number Seven is not the final chapter in the Doomsday Afternoon trilogy (that’s still in the pipeline). Still, Number Seven shares a certain mood with that album (it’s subtitled "a post-Pythagorean presentation by Phideaux") and is a concept piece in its own right. The album’s 16 tracks are divided into three sections: Dormouse Ensnared, Dormouse Escapes, and Dormouse Enlightened. As you might guess, the story is about a character named Dormouse (who may, or may not, actually be a mouse – I can’t quite tell) who breaks free from a stifling closed minded world and learns to open his experiences. In spite of that being laid out in the liner notes, I’m not quite sure I “get it,” at this point, although the general vibe I get from it is along the lines of “the truth shall set you free, but not necessarily make you happy.”

So what of the music? In a lot of ways, it’s similar in style and quality to Doomsday Afternoon. The orchestral layers of that album are gone, though it spots you’d hardly know it thanks to some nice violin and keyboard work. Speaking of keyboard stuff, I love the lead synth sound sees primary duty here and on Doomsday Afternoon. It’s pleasantly distinctive. The music draws in influences from both the prog world and the realms that lie along its borders. The result is often not the most complex music in the world, but not a note is put wrong and it all adds up to something very rich and interesting. Believe me that the simple acoustic guitar and vocal “Darkness at Noon” and the long instrumental workout “The Love Theme from Number Seven” are battling it out for favorites in my mind’s ears. Speaking of vocals, the two main lead voices, one male (Xavier, I assume) one female (can’t tell), are excellent and distinctive.

The bottom line is that Phideaux have followed up a brilliant breakthrough with an equally satisfying listen. And, thankfully, there’s apparently more where that came from, as the liner note promise a 7 ½ and, of course, we still need the end of the trilogy. It’ll be a fun wait to see what they come up with.

Disclaimer: The band was nice enough to send me a copy of the album to review.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

After the Clowing's Over

Ever wondered what balloon doggies do after the show? You know it:

Albums of the Day

The Thieving Magpie, by Marillion (1988), and Tales from the Big Bus, by Fish (1998): What a difference a decade makes.

The Thieving Magpie (the title taken from the band's intro music, the overture to Rosinni's La Gazza Ladra) was the capstone on Fish-era Marillion. Recorded at various times and places over several tours, it provides an excellent survey of what Marillion, Mk. I, was all about. It includes a complete performance of Misplaced Childhood and just about all the high points from their other three studio albums (a couple of selections aside). At the time, the band was at its commercial zenith, as was Fish as the charismatic front man. Neither would hit these heights again.

Tales from the Big Bus, on the other hand, are a snapshot of a hard working band and its leader on the long road from club to club across Europe (his former band mates were in a little better shape, but not much). Ten years removed from the big venues detailed on The Thieving Magpie. The crowd is smaller, though no less enthusiastic. Also no less potent is Fish's ability to take the crowd, put them in the palm of his hand, and captivate them for two hours (even slipping in and out of German!). It's rougher, rawer, and ruder than The Thieving Magpie, but it works in its own way.

Weave Me to the Moon

40 years ago today, Apollo 11 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on its mission to put human beings on the moon. As you might expect, news organizations are digging back into the story of the mission in the run up to the anniversary of the actual landing. Along those lines, the BBC has a fascinating story about a group of ladies who were key to the success of the mission, for a fairly odd reason.

A key to the success of the mission was the Apollo Guidance Computer (APC), the forefather of modern fly-by-wire technology. The APC was a frighteningly powerful piece of equipment for its time, but pales in comparison to the mundane laptop on which I type this (said one designer, it "was tiny compared to the one in your cellphone . . . in every dimension except size."). Reliability was key, especially for something being built when computers occupied entire buildings.

To help achieve that goal, the engineers came up with a brilliant solution:

In order to make sure that the software was robust it was 'woven' into so-called 'rope core memories'.

These used copper wires threaded through or around tiny magnetic cores to produce the ones and zeroes of binary code at the heart of the software.

Pass the copper wire through the core and the computer read it as a one. Pass it around and it was read as a zero.

'Once you get it wired it's not going to change without breaking those wires,' said Mr Hall.

The rope core memories would become know as 'LOL memory' after the 'little old ladies' who knitted together the software at a factory just outside Boston.

These ladies would sit in pairs with a memory unit between them, threading metres and metres of slender copper wires through and around the cores.
Thus, among the many unsung heroes of the mission were the little ol' weaving ladies.

I'm also amused that "LOL" has a history beyond its Internet slang meaning. Heck, I almost laughed out loud about it!

Shouldn't He Diddle a Kid First?

In this country, we're just getting around to dealing with the unintended consequences of overly broad sex offender registries (e.g.). But in the UK, they've taken the concept one step further, and want you to register (for a small fee, of course) as not being a sex offender before you set foot in a school. Author Philip Pullman has rightly said, no thanks (via NYT's Arts Beat):

Award-winning children's author Philip Pullman said on Thursday he would stop visiting schools in England because of an 'absurd' rule forcing him to register first with a government anti-pedophile database.

Pullman, writer of the 'Dark Materials' trilogy, said he was never alone with pupils and a teacher was always present.

'Why should I have to pay 64 pounds to a government agency to give me a certificate saying I am not a pedophile?,' Pullman, 62, told BBC radio. 'It's actually quite dispiriting and sinister.'
Other authors have backed Pullman up, I'm happy to say. More detailed reactions here.

Surely There's Been Some Mistake

The Emmy nominations were announced today. Getting into the whole "how did X not get nominated? They wuz robbed!!!" kind of discussion is kind of pointless, but I did have to point out one anomaly in the Best Comedy nominations:

For best comedy, HBO's Flight of the Conchords and Entourage, along with Showtime's Weeds, will battle NBC's The Office and Rock, along with first-time nominees Fox's Family Guy and CBS' How I Met Your Mother. (Family Guy is TV's first animated series to get a best-comedy nod since The Flintstones in 1961).
Now, surely, there's been some mistake. That dusty envelope, which no doubt had fallen behind a filing cabinet in, say, 1992 or 1993 and said The Simpsons on the inside, right? Don't get me wrong, I loves me some Family Guy, but it shouldn't be the one to make this breakthrough. Heck, I'd put some of South Park's prime stuff in there first.

At Least We Never Made It to Blackwatch Plaid

Via Reason, it appears that the Office of Homeland Security is deciding whether to scrap the infamous colored "threat level" scheme. Remember this guy?

Soon it may be as quaint a reminder of the post-9/11 days as Duck and Cover.

Did you ever wonder what situation was more dire than red? How bad can it actually get? Wonder no more:


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Album of the Day

Certifiable: Live in Buenos Aries, by The Police (2008): I'm not sure if this really qualifies as an "album," per se, as much as a couple of bonus discs from a concert DVD. Originally available exclusively from Best Buy, Certifiable was a 2DVD (one for the concert and one for the inevitable behind the scenes doc) and 2CD set covering a concert from the band's reunion tour recorded at River Plate's stadium in Argentina. I was bummed that The Police never got close enough for me to check out this tour, as I'd heard good things about it from the beginning and this document doesn't disappoint. The guys showed an admirable desire to mix things up by folding, spindling, and mutilating some old favorites. The playing's tight (for the most part) and, amazingly enough, everybody looks like they're having fun. I'm sure it was all temporary, though, or it just wouldn't be The Police.

There They Go Again

One of the myths of the religious right is that the American Civil Liberties Union isn't just a liberal group, but is actively anti-Christian. That's because, of course, anytime you try and keep the Christians from trying to force themselves on the public, that's "anti-Christian," as opposed to, say, sound First Amendment application.

Anywho, as I said, it's a myth, as another recent case proves (via Ed and Reason, where Jacob Sullum wins the prize for best headline of the day):

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Virginia today demanded that officials at the Rappahannock Regional Jail immediately end their illegal practice of censoring religious material sent to detainees.

In a letter sent today to the jail's superintendent, Joseph Riggs, Jr., the ACLU asks for jail officials to guarantee in writing that the jail will no longer censor biblical passages from letters written to detainees and to revise the jail's written inmate mail policy to state that letters will not be censored simply because they contain religious material.
The policy leads to some really silly results:
The letter was prompted by a complaint brought to the ACLU by Anna Williams, a devout Christian whose son was detained at Rappahannock beginning in June of 2008 until his transfer earlier this year. Williams wanted to send her son religious material, including passages from the Bible, to support him spiritually during his confinement. But rather than deliver Williams' letters to her son in full, jail officials removed any and all religious material, destroying the religious messages Williams sought to convey to her son. For example, after jail officials excised biblical passages, a three-page letter sent by Williams to her son was reduced to nothing more than the salutation, the first paragraph of the letter and the closing, 'Love, Mom.'
Yes, prisoners lose some rights when they're locked away in prison, but not all of them. A double whammy First Amendment claim - free speech and free exercise of religion - seriously narrows the otherwise broad authority that the jail might have otherwise.

For more on the ACLU standing up for the rights of Christians, see here.

Really? Felled By a Simple Virus?

You'd think holy water would be made of tougher stuff. After all, it can wash away sins, mark you as part of the faithful, and melt vampires on contact. But apparently it's no match for swine flu:

A bishop has advised that holy water be removed from churches in a bid to halt the spread of swine flu.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Right Reverend John Gladwin, said at some churches people were invited make a sign of the cross using holy water.

'The water in stoups can easily become a source of infection and a means of rapidly spreading the virus,' he said.
Gee, it's almost like the holy water is behaving just like regular ol' H2O! Who'd have thunk it!

You Think You've Got Financial Problems

Believe me, whatever financial straits you find yourself in, it's nothing compared to what this guy walked into:

A man in the United States popped out to his local petrol station to buy a pack of cigarettes - only to find his card charged $23,148,855,308,184,500.

That is $23 quadrillion (£14 quadrillion) - many times the US national debt.
All's well now (he didn't really spend that much, of course), but nobody quite knows how it happens. Pays to check your balance every now and then, kids!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Album of the Day

Subterranea, by IQ (1997): On the heels of the successful Ever, which marked the return of original front man Peter Nichols, IQ embarked on their most ambitious project, a 2-disc concept album. Hailed by many as the new generation's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, I think it suffered from over hype when it was released. Over the years, it's settled down, I think, into a solid, if not particularly spectacular, CD. The story, to be fair, is kind of neat (a person raised by some shadowy figured and turned loose on the world turns on his master) and there's plenty of interesting musical stuff here and there. It just lacks a consistent "zing," I guess.

Love the Hat

Every group of sporting folks should have a mascot, right? Well, now my little cadre of autocrossers has one. Meet Cooper:

Mini Cooper, of course. He was delivered to his humans at our big event in Parkersburg. Thanks to Cathy for sharing the pic!

Maybe They Were Right

Last week, I questioned the sanity of people attending a conference dedicated to hammering out issues between humans and fairies. As it turns out, maybe they were just getting out in front of the issue (via PrawfsBlawg):

A family in Saudi Arabia has taken a genie to court, alleging theft and harassment, according to local media.

The lawsuit filed in Shariah court accuses the genie of leaving them threatening voicemails, stealing their cell phones and hurling rocks at them when they leave their house at night, said Al-Watan newspaper.

An investigation was under way, local court officials said.
Who knew genies were hard up for cell phones?

Maybe I should open up a law firm that specializes in suing supernatural beings. Better yet, I'll represent them! That way I can bill by the hour instead of holding out for a verdict. Of course, I might have trouble making sure they get the bill . . .

A Criminal in My Ancestral Home

Although I generally think of myself as purebred West Virginia mutt, to the extent that I latch onto an ethnic heritage it's via Ireland. My last name's Irish and at least part of my family traces its roots back to there. So I was particularly disturbed to see that my ancestral homeland would make a criminal out of me (via Ed):

The Defamation Bill, which also introduces a new crime of blasphemous libel, will come into operation after it is passed by the Seanad later this week and signed into law by President Mary McAleese.

* * *

In recent months, the stalled legislation was the subject of major debate when Justice Minister Dermot Ahern announced the introduction of a new crime of blasphemous libel. He argued that a new definition was required by the Constitution.

Under the changes, the maximum fine for blasphemy will be cut from €100,000 to €25,000.
I understand that not all nations, even Western ones, share the American ideal of free speech. And I also understand that lost of countries, and even some states, have blasphemy laws lying around on the books that are essentially dead letters. Nevertheless, it's a little depressing that in the 21st Century there are nations that need to stifle expression in the name of protecting the sensibilities of religious folks.

Thankfully, someone appears to be willing to be a test case to determine the law's reach:
So, we're now officially the most religiously deranged country in the civilised world.

Now that blasphemous libel has been introduced to the statue books, it will be a crime to have a pop at religions.

So, here we go -- Catholicism is a cannibal cult which eats its leader, Jews who believe that God wants them to settle in the Holy Land are deranged lunatics, Muslims who wants to install Islamic law are nothing but fascist terrorists and Scientologists are nothing but a bunch of brainwashed weirdos who have been suckered by the malicious rantings of a failed science-fiction writer.

Alright lads, I'll see you in court.
Heh. Where do I donate to the guy's legal defense fund?

Album of Last Friday

The Dream Nebula: The Best of 1971-1975, by Nektar (1998): As a general rule, I don't like to use compilation albums as an introduction to a particular band. I'd rather go out and get what's regarded as their best stuff and work my way, forward or backward, from there. I made an exception for this one, as I found it in a brick and mortar store somewhere (New Orleans, I think), vaguely knew the band name, and thought it wasn't outrageously expensive. Nektar were a band of Brits that formed in and influenced by the space rock and related scene in Germany. This collection (which doesn't even make use of all the CD space) contains three side-long pieces that work the best. I especially like the side of the Recycled album that wraps up disc 2, as it marks the first appearance of synth guru Larry Fast with the band. Having said that, I'm not particularly motivated to go check out any of the rest of their stuff.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Album of the Day

Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends, Ladies and Gentlemen . . ., by Emerson, Lake, & Palmer (1974): Lest you think that Works was the first album to give full scope to ELP's rampaging egos, consider this document of their tour after Brain Salad Surgery. It covers a whopping three LPs (although they condense onto two fairly short CDs) and includes extended versions of the band's two epics, "Tarkus" (with a sprig of Crimson thrown in) and "Karn Evil 9." The performances are good (check the warp speed take on "Hoedown!"), although the sound quality is fairly basic. A good document of the band at its highest point.

The Ebert Strikes Back

In spite of its box office prowess, it's not surprising that Roger Ebert was less than kind to the new toy commercial/blockbuster, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen:

'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen' is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. One of these involves a dog-like robot humping the leg of the heroine. Such are the meager joys. If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.
It is a tour de force of critical savagery. I can't say it's fully deserved, as I've not seen and have no desire to see the movie. But based on the 45 minutes I spent with the first movie, during which I could hear some brain cells committing seppuku, I have no reason to quibble with Ebert's conclusions.

Alas, many others have found a great deal to quibble about, in the comments to this post over at Ebert's blog. In response, Ebert's post this week defends himself against charges of elitism and being out of touch and proudly proclaiming that he's a braniac. It's a good read, and Ebert is rational enough to realize that different people take different things away from movies and that if you happened to like Revenge of the Fallen it's of no moment to him. But I think he then takes one leap too far:
So let's focus on those who seriously believe 'Transformers' is one of the year's best films. Are these people wrong? Yes. They are wrong. I am fond of the story I tell about Gene Siskel. When a so-called film critic defended a questionable review by saying, 'after all, it's opinion,' Gene told him: "There is a point when a personal opinion shades off into an error of fact. When you say 'The Valachi Papers' is a better film than 'The Godfather,' you are wrong.' Quite true. We should respect differing opinions up to certain point, and then it's time for the wise to blow the whistle. Sir, not only do I differ with what you say, but I would certainly not fight to the death for your right to say it. Not me. You have to pick your fights.
Emphasis in original. I think Ebert misses the mark in two ways, each of which makes him come off as quite the elitist.

First, the bolded phrase there at the end is obviously a riff on Voltaire's famous quote that:
I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Maybe I'm being simple minded, and Ebert is merely being hyperbolic, but the idea that someone shouldn't have the right to say The Godfather isn't a better film than The Valachi Papers is distressing. Even idiots and those with questionable taste have the right to speak. They can't force anyone to listen, of course, but neither can anyone else shut them up.

Second, I just don't think there are objective measurements when it comes to the worth of a piece of art. The "greatness" of a piece of art can get measured in two ways. The first is the simple reaction that it produces in a particular audience, down to the individual. It is entirely subjective and often tied into the particular place and time in which the individual consumes that piece of art. The second is measured in terms of technical achievement or influence, something which is reasonably able to be objectively measured.

For example, we've spent weeks hearing how great an artist Michael Jackson was. I'm sorry, but I cannot agree. For this audience of one, his music was fluff and flash, without anything of interest to me. His stuff will never be "great," in my opinion, as it pales in comparison to the great stuff Marillion or Mike Keneally or echolyn have produced. Nevertheless, I recognize that the man had talent and his work influenced a lot of people. In that sense, he was a great artist.

To use another example, consider Citizen Kane. It was one of the first additions to my DVD library, due largely to its reputation as the greatest film ever made. Nonetheless, I've heard lots of people talk about how boring it is and how it did nothing for them. To them, it's certainly not great (indeed, not even good!). However, in one of the DVD commentaries, Ebert himself goes on a great length talking about the numerous technical achievement of Orson Welles in making the film, many are routine parts of the movie business today. In that sense, it's hard to argue that Kane isn't great, in its influence at least.

Having said all that, I want to generally harrumph Ebert on his rejection of ignorance as bliss. I wholeheartedly agree with his assertion that:
What I believe is that all clear-minded people should remain two things throughout their lifetimes: Curious and teachable.
There are few things worse in this world than a closed mind. That not only includes obvious prejudices and ignoring the evidence of the world around you, but also your ideas about art and culture. Which means, I'm afraid, that maybe I'll have to sit down and watch Revenge of the Fallen at some point after all.


Beware the Dancing Cat of Death!

Over at Daily Kos, one of the regular diarists has a semi-regular gig writing diaries about the origin stories of various mythical goddesses. As a fan of the history of woo (even if I think the woo itself is hogwash), I enjoy them. Today's entry is about the Hindu goddess Kali, who is, to use a phrase, a bitch on wheels:

The warrior Goddess Durga (or in some versions, Parvati) knit her brows in concentration, and a ball of fire burst forth, blinding with its white-hot radiance. From the center of the fire came Kali, a Goddess as black as the deepest night. She had four arms, each bearing a deadly weapon, and sharp fangs pulled into a hideous grin.

Kali walked onto the battlefield as if she was entering a party. She seized the first demon in her path and bit off its head. Then she held its body aloft and drank the blood as it poured out. Another demon attacked, but she casually killed it and drank its blood the same way.
It goes on like that, until Kali is triumphantly dancing on the chest of Shiva:

Quite fearsome, huh? (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Wanna know what's werid? I have a Kali in my world, too! And, indeed, my Kali is also "black as deepest night," has four appendages, and has a penchant for walking on, if not exactly dancing on, my chest:

Mental note - do not antagonize the girlfriend's cat. The world may not survive the repercussions!

State of Surreal (Finale?)

Finally, New York's long national nightmare is over. The deadlock in the state Senate, caused when two Democrats switched allegiances and caucused with Republicans just long enough to royally mess things up, has been resolved. How? In the only fashion really fitting the farce:

Pedro Espada Jr. returned to the Democrats and was named Senate majority leader on Thursday as part of a deal worked out by Senate Democratic leaders, ending a monthlong stalemate that has hobbled state government.

Mr. Espada’s return gave the Democrats 32 votes in the Senate, a clear two-vote margin that re-established their control of the chamber.
Thus, what began with two Dem turncoats ends only after they both have a change of heart. Lots of sound and fury (told by idiots, to be sure) signifying nothing, in the end.

Leave it to Malcom Smith, the once and future Senate president, to deliver the ultimate punchline:
'At the end of the day, Democrats always come together,' he said.

More Proof There Is No God

No Creator in her right mind would allow this to happen:

A mere nine years after Tim Meadows smooth-talked his way to instant cinematic superstardom in 2000’s The Ladies Man, the SNL movie machine has roared back into action with the announcement of an upcoming cinematic vehicle for MacGruber, Will Forte’s mulleted parody of Richard Dean Anderson’s 80s TV action hero.
For fuck's sake, it's a joke that was funny once! It wasn't even funny the second time they ran it during the same episode, not to mention the endless repetition that passes for talent on modern SNL. Oy vey.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Album of the Day

Three Sides Live, by Genesis (1982): Score one for truth in album titling, at least for a while. When this double LP hit stores in 1982, it delivered three sides of live tracks from the band's 1981 tour, focusing mostly on stuff from Duke and Abacab, plus the first appearance of an infamous "old medley." The four side was made up of studio left overs from those two albums, which had made their way onto B-sides or a UK EP called 3 x 3. That's what "the world" got.

The UK, already in possession of said studio leftovers, got a fourth live side, consisting of a clutch of classic older tunes, even with appearances from Steve Hackett and Bill Bruford. For whatever reason, when the album was remastered in 1994, Atlantic regularized things across the globe and the fourth live side was substituted for the studio stuff. All of which can lead to confusion - the poor person behind the counter at the Discount Den in Morgantown couldn't understand why I'd trade in one copy of Three Sides Live for another one without a lengthy explanation.

Oddly, although I never had much use for the studio stuff, I've come to like quite a bit of it as it's appeared in the Archives or the new boxed sets. "You Might Recall" and "Evidence of Autumn" are pretty good. I'll still never live long enough to erase the mental stain of "Paperlate," however (thanks, bro'!).

The Perils of Totalitarian Art

I've always been attracted to movies with interesting back stories. While Brazil is now one of my favorite flicks, I was initially attracted to it because of the titanic struggle that Terry Gilliam had to go through to get it released as he wanted it in the United States.

Along those same lines, I'd always wanted to see Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Eisenstein's tale of a 13th-century Russian hero's triumph over invading German crusaders. Finally, thanks to a well timed Borders coupon, I've been able to get my hands on the Criterion Collection version (which comes boxed with Eisenstein's two part Ivan the Terrible). If nothing else, it is a potent example of how a repressive dictatorship shapes art, in both overt and subtle ways.

Nevsky was the product of two brilliant artists in desperate need of a "hit," so to speak.

Eisenstein made his name as a pioneer of Russian silent film, most notably for The Battleship Potemkin. But by the time Nevsky was made in 1937, however, he was outside of the Soviet artistic power structure. A few years in Hollywood hadn't been fruitful. On return to the Soviet Union, Eisenstein had production on his film Bezhin Meadow (what's left of it is a bonus feature on the Criterion DVD) shut down by the government for being politically incorrect.

Eisenstein's collaborator was in similar straights. Composer Sergei Prokofiev had also gone abroad, though with more success. When he returned to the Soviet Union in 1935, he found himself working under the watchful eyes (and ears) of the "Composers' Union," which sought to limit outside influence in Soviet music. One of his works, Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, was banned and went unheard until 1966.

With that background, you can see why Eisenstein was desperate. As this lengthy and funny review explains:

So when it came time to write his next screenplay, Eisenstein collaborated with Pyotr Pavlenko, a member of the secret police who allegedly sat in on NKVD interrogations. American filmmakers bitch and moan about dealing with Philistine studio executives, but at least those guys only pretend to be bloodthirsty madmen. To say Eisenstein was operating from a position of limited power is an understatement. It's not a surprise, then, that Alexander Nevsky is unsubtle and clumsy in its ideology. The real wonder is it wasn't titled Please Don't Kill Me, Comrade Stalin.
Eisenstein chose Nevsky as a subject partly because so little was known about him and thus there was less chance of ideological straying. Eisenstein wound up making a film that's not just shot in black and white but is black and white in its storytelling: the honest (and oddly irreligious, for the 13th century) Russians, led by their humble superman of a leader (that would be Nevsky), defeat the invading very Catholic and nearly mustache twiddling German horde in a spectacular battle on a frozen lake. The script almost writes itself.

That background alone would be sufficient to make Alexander Nevsky a paradigmatic example of totalitarian art. But the regime impacted the film in a more subtle, and perhaps unintended, way.

Einstein and Prokofiev were truly collaborators on the project. According to another of the bonus features on the Criterion DVD, parts of the score were actually written first. Eisenstein would then take the music then shoot and cut the visuals to match. It was a technique inspired by, of all things, Disney's Silly Symphonies and, a project in the works while Eisenstein was in Hollywood, Fantasia. The result should have been a seamless marriage of visuals and music, something along the lines of what Stanley Kubrick would achieve decades later in 2001.

Instead, the regime trod all over the soundtrack in two critical ways. First, authorities required that Prokofiev record the score in a Soviet studio using Soviet equipment. Problem was, Soviet studio technology was about 15 years behind Hollywood's, which meant that the score wasn't very well recorded to begin with. Second, Stalin became so infatuated with the film that he rushed it into theaters before the soundtrack was polished. The speculation on the Criterion bonus feature is that the score we have now was meant as a "scratch" or demo track, which Prokofiev never had the chance to redo. Not surprisingly, the film is sometimes shown today with a live orchestra playing the score.

Audio quality problems aside, catching Stalin's favor must have been good for business, right? Oh it was, for a bit. The film opened in November 1938 to popular acclaim, before the tide of history swamped over it. On August 24, 1939, the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. As I mentioned above, the movie is about a Russian army turning back invading Germans. That wasn't a politically astute story to tell once the nonaggression pact was signed, so the film was withdrawn from circulation.

If you know your history, you can probably figure out what happened next in the life of Alexander Nevsky. On June 22, 1941, the Nazis broke the nonaggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Hey, what a great time to push a film about brave Russians turning back German aggressors back into theaters! Ever since, the film has been part of the lore of Soviet cinema and remains the most popular (if not most acclaimed) work of Eisenstein's career. Prokofiev took the music for the film and repurposed it into the Alexander Nevsky Cantata, which remains a popular work today.

All that being said, how does Alexander Nevsky work as a flim? Honestly, it was a bit of a disappointment. Granted, it's more than 70 years old, but a lot of it comes across as stiff, sometimes bordering on corny (I agree with a lot of what's said in the review I quoted above). The good guys are really good and the bad guys are really really bad (they make the Borg or the Daleks look charming by comparison). That being said, it has some stunning visual sequences and the music is wonderful.

If you can lay your hands on a decent version, I highly recommend it. Not so much as brilliant cinema, but as a historical example of the kind of art that gets produced when the state tries to micromanage its artists. Sometimes, the better story is behind the camera, rather than what happens in front of it.

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

Holy cow, how did I miss this over the weekend. Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone - man whom nobody in the sport seems to have any affection for - said some really stupid shit in a newspaper interview:

In an interview with Britain's Times newspaper, Ecclestone was quoted as saying democracy 'hasn't done a lot of good for many countries.' And then added:

'Terrible to say this I suppose, but apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was in the way that he could command a lot of people able to get things done.'
That's not even the entirety of the stupid (ask him about women racers!), but that's the most concentrated. Really, Hitler was just a patsy along for the ride? Has Bernie never heard of Mein Kampf?

Don't get me wrong - when it comes to sports, a benevolent dictatorship is often the way to go. NASCAR is where it is today largely because Bill France ruled it with an iron fist for years, whereas American open-wheel racing is largely in the state it's in because there was no one person calling the shots. Of course, so often the dictator is not so much benevolent as befuddled (see Blatter, Sepp).

I suppose you could even make the argument that a truly benevolent king or emperor - someone who ruled absolutely, but justly and fairly - would be a better way to go than the messy workings of democracy. Two problems with that theory. First, it's awfully hard to suss out who is going to be benevolent and who isn't until they start impaling their enemies on the front lawn. Second, if you're going to make that argument, you need to find some more, well, benevolent examples than Hitler and Saddam Hussein!

I'm generally not a fan of punishing someone for giving light to their dumb ideas. But since nobody likes Bernie, anyway, can he just go away now?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Mister 3000

Not to toot my own horn or nothin', but that post below about Works is post number 3000 here at the Ranch. Hard to believe, it's been five and a half years since I got things rolling. Thanks to everybody who reads and/or comments!

Album of the Day

Works, Volume 1, by Emerson, Lake, & Palmer (1977):Kids, back in the old days – before the Internet and iPods and flying cars (er, wait a minute . . .) – music used to come on things called “albums.” “LPs” to be precise, which stood for “long playing.” They were big black (usually) discs with a groove on each side, from which the stereo fairies harvested recorded sounds. Since a person had to get up and turn a LP over midway through, each side was kind of thought of as a separate unit.

I say all that as background, ‘cause otherwise you won’t understand the operative theory behind this album. See, as a double LP, it had four sides. Thus, the guys in the band decided to each have a side for themselves, before returning to ELP in all its glory on side four. Emerson takes side one and fully gives in to his classical pretensions, producing a piano concerto. It’s not a masterwork, but it’s got its moments (as was highlighted by a kick ass drum corps adaption by Blue Devils, IIRC). Side two belongs to Lake, who poots forth an entire side worth of acoustic ballads. You can’t be too hard on Lake’s stuff – “Lucky Man” and the like are as much a part of ELP’s legacy as “Tarkus” or “Karn Evil 9” – but an entire slab of it at once is a little too much. Palmer takes up side three, with an interesting collection of instrumental stuff, on which he gets help from Joe Walsh, of all people. But the highlights of the album come on side four, where the band reunites for an extended workout of “Fanfare for the Common Man” and the epic seafaring tale “Pirates”. Honestly, post 1974, that’s the best the boys would manage.

In the wake of such indulgence, there was only one thing to do: load the whole kit and caboodle up on a series of semis – the band, the orchestra, Emerson’s massive Yamaha GX-1 synth, Lake’s infamous carpet, Palmer’s equally infamous (to the road crew, anyway) stainless steel drum kit – and tour the world. It was, in a real sense, a twilight of the prog rock gods (Godderwankerung?).

On Being a Gracious Winner

I have a theory about the American criminal justice system. Though not quite fully formed, it goes something like this: The adversarial nature of the American system turns the trial process into a contest between two sides, which invariably produces a winner and a loser. Often times, it seems that various players in the systems - defendants, victims, lawyers on both sides - are more concerned with winning than whether "justice," however that is defined, is done. As a result, folks who perceive that they've lost the "game" don't accede very well to the results, even if they really shouldn't complain.

So, let's say, you're playing in a pick up soccer game. You don't like the guys on the other team and when you finally win, you indulge in some exceptionally gratifying smack talk. What's the worst that could happen? I suppose you could get punched, but probably the losers will just walk away.

A word to criminal defendants everywhere - prosecutors don't like to lose and they generally are not willing to walk away. Witness this case from Virginia (via Doug Berman):

Powell, 31, was convicted in 2000 of killing Reed and raping and trying to kill her 14-year-old relative. He was sentenced to die for Reed's murder.

The Virginia Supreme Court overturned Powell's capital conviction, saying that Prince William County prosecutors failed to prove Powell tried to rob or rape Reed. In order to face capital punishment, defendants must commit other crimes against the victim or meet other aggravating circumstances.

Thinking he could no longer face the death penalty, Powell wrote a profanity-laced, taunting letter to prosecutors offering graphic detail of how he tried to rape Reed before he stabbed her three times and stomped on her throat until she quit breathing.

'Do you just hate yourself for being so stupid and for (messing) up and saving me?' he wrote to Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert in 2001.

Ebert threw out Powell's earlier indictment and charged him with killing and attempting to rape Reed. Powell was convicted again in 2003 and given the death penalty.
Now, there are serious double jeopardy issues here and it will be interesting to see what, if anything, the Supreme Court does with the case. But the meta lesson shouldn't be confined to legal principles: when you win, do so with grace and humility. If you act like a douche bag, don't be surprised if you get squeezed.

Way to Go Gooch!

Well, it looks like last month's performance by the United States in the Confederations Cup is starting to pay dividends for individual players. Mammoth defender Oguchi Onyewu, who for years has been rumored to be leaving Standard Liege in Belgium for bigger stages, is headed for the big time:

AC Milan have quickly wrapped up a deal for United States centre back Oguchi Onyewu on Tuesday in a bid to quell supporter unrest over their transfer policy.

The 27-year-old, who impressed in the U.S. side's run to the Confederations Cup final last month, has joined on a free transfer from Standard Liege and penned a three-year contract.
If I'm remembering correctly, Gooch will be just the second American to play in Italy's top league (Alexi Lalas did it for small fry Padova way back when). Regardless, he will also be the first American to (hopefully) be a regular in the starting 11 for one of the world's biggest clubs.

Hey, I've got a rooting interest in Serie A now - Forza Gooch!

Monday, July 06, 2009

Album of the Day

Dancing, by Mike Keneally and Beer for Dolphins (2000): I should listen to this album more often. It rocks me. It grooves me. It makes me sing, loudly and out of tune. It makes me look like a dipshit, walking around my office in an air guitar frenzy. In short, it makes me smile. The sort of big goofy grin kind of smile that nobody ever really experiences enough in life. Yup, I should listen to this album more often.

Is This Really a Pressing Issue?

I'm currently reading (well, listening to) Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the 2005 Hugo winner by Susanna Clarke. It's about two magicians in early 19th-century England who aspire to return English magic to its rightful place in the world, and defeat Napoleon in the bargain. I'm not far enough into it to know how it turns out, but it's very cool so far. It's written in the style of a learned treatise on the two men (written by whom, I don't yet know), complete with footnotes explaining various terms, providing dates of the relevant people involved, and, in the spirit of a good law review, providing citations to various books on magic and magicians.

As you might imagine, part of the back story involves fairies and the interaction between them and humans. I'm afraid the verisimilitude of the novel has taken in some particularly susceptible folks (via PZ):

About 250 people came to the Methow Valley June 26 through 28 from as far away as Europe and Hawaii to participate in the ninth annual Fairy and Human Relations Congress, an outdoor festival in a secluded mountain meadow called Skalitude.

* * *

'The purpose of the congress is to encourage communication and cooperation of the fairy realm,' said Michael 'Skeeter' Pilarski, the event's founder and organizer.

The human world is in crisis and can use all the help it can get, Pilarski said, so why not form alliances with those in other realms?
Although I'm not quite halfway through the book, I wonder if alliances with the fairy realm is really that good of an idea? I mean, far be it for be to disagree with Skeeter, but if someone called The Raven King shows up, we're in deep fairy shit.

Ah, but Skeeter does stumble into a bit of truth, completely by accident:
Skeptics might mock the participants or dismiss them as New Age hippies, but they say their belief system is not much different from Native American animists or even Christians who believe in angels.

'We might call (fairies) angels of nature,' said Pilarski, an herb farmer and writer who also founded the annual Okanogan Family Barter Faire in nearby Tonasket.
You're right, Skeeter - they're not so different from angels and the like in that they're equally products of you imagination. Talk about damning with faint praise.

Moroccan Metal

Next time you think your band is having problems, consider the plight of heavy metal bands in Morocco. As one musician's father explains:

'If it's just to express a freedom, OK.

'But as Muslims, as Moroccans, as an Arabic society, we have certain limits.'

Those limits were apparently breached in 2003 when 14 heavy metal fans were accused of Satanism, and imprisoned.

Human rights groups and performers took to the streets, saying the rockers were guilty only of wearing black clothes and singing provocative songs.

Shortly afterwards the 14 were released.
It's sort of nice that moms are the same in every culture, tho - the mother of the subject of the piece isn't really a fan of her son's music, but she still plays it for friends and visitors!

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Douglas Chronicles: Dye Another Day

As I've explained before, MamaK and Roy's raise critters on their ranch for their hair of fur, which then becomes wool. As fate would have it, K is a knitter and otherwise consumer of said fiber products. Nice synergy, huh? Of course, such talents run in the family, so MamaK does her share of fiber stuff, too.

One part of that craft is dyeing wool, either in "raw" form or after it's been spun and refined, to create a more distinctive look. With oodles of fiber on hand (both on the hoof and off), K, MamaK, and I spent an afternoon dyeing some bits. It was, as you might expect, my first chance to try my hands at it.

First, of course, all the accouterments must be assembled:

Our dyeing involved two different types of wool. The first batch consisted of raw unrefined wool. It hadn't yet been spun into yarn or something equally useful. In fact, it had already been dyed once, which produced a black to grey streaked bunch. We'd be dyeing it again (overdyeing, I believe it's called) - purple this time - with the new color taking on the shading of the original. Here, K soaks the wool:

And then it gets dumped in a pot of warm water that's had the dye infused into it:

More like cooking than crafting, really. The results were pretty cool:

The second batch of dyeing involved wool that had already been spun into yarn. However, it was in one loooong hunk of stuff, and needed to be wound out into individual skeins, which would they be dyed. Turns out, I was pretty good at it:

The actual dyeing, not so much. Having never worked with wool before, I didn't have any real idea of how it would react to color and liquid. I ended up with the dry skein (they can be either dry or wet when dyed), over which the dye tended to run, before soaking in the back. Needless to say, whatever grand plan I had going into the process didn't play out in the end. I think it still turned out pretty well, but didn't get any pictures (sorry).

K, on the other hand, knew just what she was doing. She whipped out two skeins in the time it took me to finish one. Then she set upon a third skein, made with stylistic input from the both of us. In other words, she did the work, I said "that'll look pretty" and took pictures:

The finished product, before drying:

The things we dyed sat out overnight to dry. The next day, K and MamaK worked out some of the kinks:

And the lovely K models two of her finished products:

As does you humble narrator:

That's my experience being crafty.

And there you have it, dear reader(s), a chronicle of my adventures in Big Sky country. It's a beautiful and breathtaking place, in its own way, and full of friendly people. But I was glad to get back to my green mountains and big (relatively!) city.